"At Eighty Two: A Journal," by May Sarton. W.W. Norton. Illustrated. 320 pages. $23 This is the last work of May Sarton, who died in July 1995 at the age of 83. The author of 52 volumes of poetry, novels and works for children, Ms. Sarton wanted to be remembered as a poet. Yet it is her eight journals, beginning in 1968 with "Plant Dreaming Deep," that will be her most enduring contribution to literature. As exercises in the genre, the journals rank with, and at times resemble, the work of Colette in their loving attention to plants and animals and their acute recording of emotion.
The daughter of George Sarton, a pioneering historian of science, and Eleanor Mabel Elwes, a designer and painter, May Sarton came to America at 2 from her native Belgium, a refugee from World War I. Her early career was shaped by her experiences in the Civic Repertory Theater in New York during the Depression, and travel in England, where she became one of Virginia Woolf's many friends and one of Elizabeth Bowen's many lovers. Few women poets of her generation and its successors wrote or died of natural causes. Ms. Sarton, like her friend Gwendolyn Brooks, achieved a largeness of spirit and a deservedly devoted following as she continued to develop as a writer.
"At Eighty-Two" is the most absorbing of Ms. Sarton's journals. Earlier works often focus on an issue: claustrophobia in "Journal of a Solitude"; a mastectomy in "Recovery"; a journal with the theme "After the Stroke." Recording her life alone in a New England village and later in a house by the sea in York, Maine, these journals often have an air of enforced cheerfulness. But in her last book, Ms. Sarton decided to add "after-thoughts" to her entries and composed partly through dictation.
The work benefits from this link between spontaneity and reflection. "At Eighty Two" tells of the ordeal of her daily life during the continuous ice and snow storms of 1993-1994. She begins to think of solitude without her customary celebration. She realizes "in solitude we are with ourself and that is what is so frightening because what if there is no self there? Some people do not have a real self." In another passage, she finds she has grown tired of books, yet she is "glad" for the pleasure of having her thinking change.
The editors at Norton wisely have let the book stand as written.
A quip about an acquaintance in her 90s who still enjoys all-night talks after dinner parties is repeated within a few pages. We read Ms. Sarton's incoherent plot summary of a recent film and realize that we have been seeing everything through a consciousness that is both profound and profoundly flawed.
The observant reader will find the book more helpful than any self-help book could ever be; Ms. Sarton's dogged adherence to a frame - getting up at a regular hour, following a schedule of intellectual work, caring for animals and, as long as she can, a garden - keeps her alive. Over the course of her career, Ms. Sarton acquired thousands of readers who sought inspiration and a perhaps too-ready identification with her life. In "At Eighty Two" we are fortunate to have the particulars of one person's tenacious, absorbing approach to death.
Susan Stewart's most recent books are "Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation" and "The Forest," a book of poems.